Sorrento 1: Hotel Minerva and the "Old Town."

Sorrento 1: Hotel Minerva and the

     Our two days in Sorrento turned out to be unexpectedly delightful, restful, and respite from the heavily scheduled list of sites and scenes at other destinations our trip to southern Italy.  The weather was a little overcast with brief rain showers on and off, which was a nice break from the almost 100º temperatures we experienced in Rome for two days.

     Our main objective in Sorrento was to visit the Hotel Minerva, where our father spent four days at “Officers’ Rest Camp” a couple of weeks after his intense experience on Mt. Pantano, treating and evacuating wounded soldiers under heavy artillery fire.  He didn’t feel comfortable leaving his men for this indulgence, but definitely needed the time away from the trauma of combat.

     Due to the strict censorship policy for letters sent home from overseas during the war, correspondence could not contain any sensitive information regarding locations, details of battles, combat casualties, or current status – any news that might be appropriated by the enemy and used to its advantage. It had taken me almost two years of research to figure out that Sorrento and specifically the Hotel Minerva, was the site of the officers’ rest camp where Lud had stayed in December 1943. There was no name/mention of this location in any military records, archives, or published books.

            In a letter home to my mother, Dad described his time at the Hotel Minerva in Sorrento:

 27 December 1943; Italy

  “Dearest Jean:

            What a Christmas!  It was hard to believe in a way, yet very little things loom very large at times over here. Last night I returned to the outfit after a four-day trip to the officers’ “rest camp” or “leave camp,” located in a famous resort town [Sorrento] across the bay from a very large metropolis [Naples] in Italy. I certainly did have a good time.

            A month or so ago the Army took over one of the large old resort hotels in this coast village and retaining the civilian staff that has worked there for years, made it into a “rest camp” for the old broken-down army officers, like me. The rooms and appointments were of the best: real beds with clean sheets and mattresses, hot and cold running water in the room, and a semi-private bathroom with an honest-to-goodness “john” in it. What a place. I used everything all I could (ahem!!).

            The service was excellent. The moment you approached the front door a doorman opened it and a porter took your luggage away from you and there were also nice chairs in the lobby where you could pass out comfortably from the shock. The dining room served excellent food (best G.I. ration, with an Italian twist on the culinary interpretation) and a nice little string ensemble that wafted soft music between bites. The ensemble also had a very pretty and petite Italian girl with Hollywood dimensions who had a golden coloratura with which she had the boys all groggy in short order. Downstairs there was a billiard and ping-pong table as well as a post exchange, and the bar opened about 11:00 a.m. and closed after midnight. There was a spacious glass roofed winter garden with potted palms and wicker chairs and from the veranda, as well as from the balcony of my room, one could look out across the water at night toward the lights on the shore across the bay, or at the dull red glow of a volcano [Vesuvius] in action.”


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     Months before our trip to Italy in August 2023, when planning the trip itinerary and details, I tried to book rooms at Hotel Minerva only to learn they were “sold out” until January 1st! I hadn’t realized how popular the Amalfi coast was, especially in peak season.  Luckily, I was able to make reservations at a hotel just a short walk away, so we settled for dinner reservations at Hotel Minerva the evening we arrived.

     Dining on the hotel’s terrace was an exquisite setting, overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea and Naples in the distance. Also, Mt. Vesuvius was “out,” but not glowing, as it was when my father was there over 80 years ago. Our dining was made all the more dramatic by a wonderful and intense rainstorm, with heavy plastic curtains magically lowering to keep us dry. I was surprised that all the staff knew of the Minerva’s history during WWII, and when they heard about our father staying there as an officer in 1943, we were given the royal treatment.

     As we toured the hotel, I tried to imagine and feel what my combat-weary father might have experienced in 1943. With a small orchestra playing in the background for diners, it must have felt quite surreal, and in sharp contrast to the raging action on the front, where he had just been. 

     In his December 27, 1943 letter, Lud describes in detail the dance held at the hotel, the local Italians in attendance, and the odd, almost comical dynamics of the Italian men who “escorted” their women to the Americans’ party. Most likely, these Italians had been “dancing” with the Germans,” just a few weeks prior, my dad noted. Read about it in A DOCTOR’S WAR.


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     The following day, I had booked a walking tour of “old Sorrento” with guide, Hugo, and much to our delight, no one else was in our group. Hugo knew his history well, and as we ambled through narrow streets and alley ways, he gave us the “Cliff’s Notes” version of Sorrento’s origins. Along the way, we stopped at tucked away artisan’s studios.  One such place, where I went a little wild, was a fourth-generation family business of designing and making beautiful inlaid wood boxes and picture frames. I bought several of these exquisite/handmade pieces for family gifts (shhh), that were to be shipped home. And a few streets away, I fell in love with an embroidered linen table cloth that I also arranged to be sent back to the U.S.

      Soon after arriving home from our trip, I sat up in bed one night with a start and a nagging recollection of something mentioned in one of my dad’s letters — and here is what I found:

      27 December 1943; Italy

     “The town [Sorrento] itself was rather quiet; that is, as quiet as a hundred officers and their drivers would let it be. There were many fine shops where “objects des arts” were sold. The main attraction as far as souvenirs were concerned, were the inlaid wood boxes made there and the fine hand worked (embroidered, I guess) linen and laces available. I was pretty much entranced by the whole place, so I squandered a wad on some boxes and linen which you will receive one of these days. I don’t know whether you’ll want to use them or not, but I wanted some souvenirs of the place. I’ll always kick myself for not buying a little linen on Swamp Island [Northern Ireland] back in the days of our destitution.”

     Is it possible that my dad and I were drawn to the same fine art in Sorrento? I hadn’t consciously remembered his comments about “souvenirs” in Sorrento. Was there an invisible thread stretching across time and place, binding us in some special and mysterious way? I like to think so.

     And, regretfully, I have a sinking feeling, that in sorting through all my parents’ belongings after their deaths in 2008 and 2013, and before reading my father's war letters, I may have inadvertently placed the WWII Sorrento souvenirs into the estate sale bin, not knowing of their historic significance at the time.

Posted December 25, 2023

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